Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 4: The cultural evolution of signs

Homo sapiens was the product of an evolutionary leap. But our cognitive abilities did not spring into existence overnight. As we have discussed, there was a gap of thousands of years between our species’ first appearance 150—200,000 years ago and the widespread use of fully modern behaviours, arguably beginning with the art of the Upper Paleolithic — a gap too short to be explained by evolutionary change. This places mature symbolisation in the ‘tectonic phase’ of human development. If language and other processes had developed a new capacity in us, it took a certain amount of time before our species began, for the first time in Earth’s history, to really explore its potential and produce art.

This means that as well as searching for the distant Stone Age origins of our symbolic capacity in tools, fire, language, etc, we also need to explore how that capacity itself evolved over subsequent millennia to help give us art, institutions and religion.

There is no consensus among scientists about when language and the use of symbols arose, how far it represents a genetic development and how this ties in with cultural evolution. The likelihood seems to be that the capacity for using symbols developed in pre-sapiens humans, and that the process was accelerated by cultural transmission. We did not go from a bit of engraved ochre to the Turner Prize overnight, it was part of a process — which is still underway — of the ratchet effect of cumulative cultural learning. Although Darwinian evolution continues, the dominant mechanism of change in human beings and their societies has become culture: a hugely faster process.

Cognitive archaeology

One of the most useful fields of research here is the relatively young science of cognitive archaeology, a branch of archaeology which seeks to understand where human minds come from: how consciousness evolved and how people thought in the past. We have already made reference on this blog to the work of such figures as Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello.

Cognitive archaeologists have proposed that the changes were brought about by cultural transmission, defined by Michael Tomasello as a process “that enables individual organisms to save much time and effort, not to mention risk, by exploiting the already existing knowledge and skills of conspecifics.”[1] Uniquely, humans evolved a form of social cognition that made them capable of cultural evolution, i.e. to accumulate modifications over time in a way other animal species cannot. Each of us enters the world as a sentient animal very similar to our ancestors of 150,000 years ago. To take the example of language: our genome gives us an inherited capacity for language, but we will not be able to speak one unless it is taught to us by culture.[2]

Humans’ faculty for cultural learning depends, in Tomasello’s view, upon our ability to recognise our fellow humans as conscious beings with intentions and mental lives like our own, an ability which develops in infants from around 9–12 months old.

This understanding of others as intentional beings like the self is crucial... because cultural artifacts and social practices — exemplified prototypically by the use of tools and linguistic symbols — invariably point beyond themselves to other outside entities: tools point to the problems they are designed to solve and linguistic symbols point to the communicative situations they are designed to represent. Therefore, to socially learn the conventional use of a tool or symbol, children must come to understand why, toward what outside end, the other person is using the tool or symbol; that is to say, they must understand the intentional significance of the tool use or symbolic practice.[3]

Without symbols, we could not represent the experiences of others, itself demanding that we are aware of the minds of others. This gives humans “the ability to share a virtual common mind” (Deacon). The ways in which we may use symbolic communication to represent our own states of mind, but also other people’s states of mind, are infinite, but when we use symbols, we do not conjure up our own unique language — we borrow the conventions from our social context.

The use of symbolic representation is thus a social, collective activity and sociogenetic in nature. We are born into a world of culture and learn about the relationships and conventions within it. Symbols show us how previous generations have tried to categorise, reimagine and understand the world, and communicate it to others. They also introduce us to a multiplicity of perspectives. Tomasello comments on how a dog might be portrayed as an animal, a pet, or a pest, depending upon what the person wished to communicate about it. Symbols are not a direct sensory record but an interpretation, one way amongst many others in which someone has tried to place a meaning on something. Over a long period of historical time, symbols accumulate a legacy of meaning within a society. Thus symbols “free human cognition from the immediate perceptual situation... by enabling multiple simultaneous representations of each and every, indeed all possible, perceptual situations” (Tomasello).

Institutional facts

One of the consequences of symbolic behaviour centres upon ‘institutional facts’. It is worth turning here to Colin Renfrew’s discussion of symbols in Prehistory:

Human culture is based upon the use of symbols, in words and in material form. Initially they were used for things that were evidently there in nature — like birds or the sun — things that the philosopher John Searle would call ‘brute facts’. But they can also be used to indicate realities that are not, in quite this way, facts of nature but rather what can be termed social facts. For instance this hat can be my hat, and that hat is your hat. Those attributions of ownership are what Searle would term ‘institutional facts’, which are of a very different kind.

This simple and perhaps seemingly trivial distinction turns out to be a very important one when we come to understand how human culture is constructed...

It is no exaggeration to say that society is organised by means of symbolic categories — and it is important also to note that different societies organise themselves by means of different symbolic categories. Symbols are used, for instance, for measuring the world and for planning. They are dependent upon the formations of new forms of social relations, which themselves rely upon the use of symbols to structure and to regulate inter-personal behaviour. Symbols of authority are needed in any society of a sufficient size so that we know who everyone is personally — we need to recognise the policeman or the ticket inspector or the bank clerk for the role they play. At the superficial level we recognise the policeman by his helmet, or the ticket inspector by his or her uniform or badge, and bank clerks by their mode of dress and the place in which they sit: these are the symbolic indicators. But, at a more basic level, these social roles are dependent upon institutional developments: the formation of a police force, or the development of a transport system, or the institution of banking.[4]

Symbols are not only what we speak with and what we daub on cave walls — they are what we think with too. It is wrong to conceive of symbols dualistically as mental counterparts to a physical ‘reality’. The police officer’s uniform does not only symbolise a special kind of individual but introduces a new concept, or a new relationship: that society has created a body of men and women who by social agreement are granted power to restrain the actions of others. This in turn is predicated upon the institution of private property, the protection of which makes up 90% of the modern police officer’s work.

A symbol does not merely recreate material reality in an alternative form. It represents the creation or discovery of a new kind of reality. Let us take the example of gold. Today it is taken for granted that gold is a highly valuable metal, but its earliest known use as such dates back only as far as about 4500 BCE at the Varna necropolis in Bulgaria.

Varna goldGold items from the Varna necropolis. Photo: Yelkrokoyade.

Gold has relatively little use value, being too soft to be used in most practical applications; its value in human societies had its origins in various things which we needn’t discuss here. But as Renfrew points out:

the value assigned to a piece of gold, while in one sense arbitrary, is, for those who accept it, a reality. It... may be termed an institutional fact. For the societies that accept it, the value of gold is indeed a reality, and a reality by which one can live and govern the practice of one’s life.

Whereas for Paleolithic humanity, gold was at best a fascinatingly shimmery material, for some early civilisations it had become, at worst, a good reason to kill people. In other societies, the principal material of value was feathers, or precious stones. There is no literal physical reality in which gold or any other material is a valuable commodity. “Without ceasing to be a part of material reality,” wrote Voloshinov, “such an object, reflects and refracts another reality.”

A £10 note is not literally worth £10, because its cost of production is just a few pence. Once accepted as a symbol of value, however, people can use it to purchase £10’s worth of goods. The note, and the goods we purchase, appear to us to be actually worth £10. Because the money can claim £10’s worth of goods, and the goods can be exchanged for £10, it seems to the person that the value of £10 is inherent in the money and goods themselves. In fact it is a social reality, part of what Marx would have termed ‘social relations’. This brings us to what Marx termed commodity fetishism, a phenomenon where people mistake social relationships for relationships between things.[5] In the same way that some tribal cultures attribute particular objects with a mysterious power inherent in the object itself — the fetish — so people invest objects with inherent values or powers that they do not in fact possess. A £10 note is really a symbol made of paper and ink.

The establishment of gold as a valuable commodity then made it possible for gold to emerge in some societies as a ‘universal equivalent’ — a commodity used to measure the value of all other commodities — and thus to allow the creation of money, itself a symbol of the value created by a quantity of socially necessary labour time. Thus we see how new concepts emerge out of other, existing concepts.

It would be a mistake to think that such processes are purely mental constructs. They also depend upon humans’ material engagement with the world — in the case of gold, their discovery of gold, their exploration of its properties, their invention of mining techniques, and so on. Likewise, class society grew out of the creation of a social surplus via the agricultural revolution, and a layer of people who won control over that surplus. (We have already commented on the way in which symbols and art can be recruited to reinforce a particular class structure, for example in conspicuous displays of wealth and power.) Through their own actions, humans create or discover social relationships, ideas, values and, by doing so, expand their own cognitive and intellectual capacities. Marx recognised this long ago:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.[6]

To a Marxist, it is immediately apparent that the concept of institutional facts, indeed symbolism by its very nature, is inseparable from ideology.

Of course, quite what the people of past cultures meant by their symbols is sometimes very difficult for us to decipher. For example, images that seem to resemble vulvae are very common in Paleolithic parietal art.

Paleolithic engraving of a vulvaPaleolithic engraved symbol resembling a vulva. Photo: Calame.

Archaeologists can offer all sorts of theories for why artists carved such images onto rock surfaces, relating to the obvious themes of sexuality, fertility, rebirth and so on. We can put forward educated hypotheses based upon the referent, the wider archaeological context, and analogous practices in other cultures. But what these images actually meant to their Stone Age creators is impossible to know for sure.

In our article on ideology, we commented: “Society provides art with its raw material, with its range of possibilities. But art is not dictated to by economic conditions. If it was, it could in our society only reflect capitalist ideology. In fact, because it has strong relations with many different strands of the superstructure — such as philosophy, religion and psychology, not to mention the artist’s own idiosyncratic experience — and because many of these strands will be in contradiction, art is able to assert a degree of independence.” This holds true for symbols in general, because the relationship of a symbol to its referent is arbitrary. Terrence Deacon commented:

Because symbolic representation maintains reference irrespective of indexical attachment to any particular experiences, when an idea or a narrative of someone’s experience is reconstructed by another, it can be regrounded, so to speak, by interpreting it in terms of the iconic and indexical representations that constitute the listener’s memory. Symbolic reference is interpreter-dependent, because each interpreter independently supplies the nonsymbolic ground for it.[7]

Each person can bring their own individual meaning to a symbol or work of art. Hence the importance of cultural conventions in providing powerful, widespread and enduring accounts of how symbols should be understood. With Paleolithic art, it is precisely these conventions that have been lost.


Humans broadly share their cognitive powers with other primates, with an important exception — an adaptation enabling us to recognise the intentionality and consciousness of others. This adaptation enabled a unique process of cultural evolution, through which we interact with the world through the mediation of symbolic and cultural artifacts. These artifacts embody the perspectives of the people who created them and bequeath the knowledge and ideology of past generations to the present, helping to form an accumulation of culturally transmitted experience.

Long continuity in cultural practice then led to shared ideas, concepts and conventions, which in turn conditioned the cultural trajectories of different social groups (the Egyptians as compared to the Mesopotamians, and so on). The shared conventions became institutional facts governing how members of the group inter-related, and related with other groups, and how people related and engaged with the physical world.

[1] Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999).
[2] One area of great interest to cognitive archaeologists is the means by which individuals store cultural information using the memory, and the later impact of external storage in the form of writing systems.
[3] Tomasello, op. cit.
[4] Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[5] The appearance of commodities makes it possible to turn art itself into a commodity, which we will study another time.
[6] Karl Marx, ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[7] Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997).

Monday, 25 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 3: Origins

We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein [1]

Today, all humanity engages in the creative and complex use of symbolic representation. But there is no consensus among archaeologists about when this began. One school of thought favours a ‘long-range’ model wherein hominids have been capable of some degree of symbolic behaviour for hundreds of thousands of years. Others prefer the ‘short-range’ model, limiting it to Homo sapiens.[2] Unequivocal art appears 40,000 years ago in the cave art of France and Spain. This is very unlikely however to represent the first appearance of symbol use among humans, whose origins lie not in the fully-formed art of the caves but in cognitive capacities which must have developed earlier, perhaps much earlier, than art.

The symbolic ape

To what extent pre-sapiens human species were capable of symbolic representation is disputed. Readers will know that this blog tends to the view that art, with the possible exception of some Neanderthal objects, has only ever been created by Homo sapiens. This does not mean that symbolic behaviours cannot have awakened in our genus long before our species appeared.

Language, for example, which is communication by symbolic means, is considered by many archaeologists to have developed prior to sapiens. The Makapansgat pebble from South Africa was found in a cave where it could not have occurred naturally, inviting speculation that it was carried there by some gifted australopithecine fascinated by its resemblance to a face. This raises the possibility of a rudimentary symbolic faculty as far back as 3 million years ago (and reminds us of Terrence Deacon’s suggestion that symbolic communication may date as early as the australopithecines). From about 850,000 years ago, Homo erectus in South Africa and elsewhere seems to have collected quartz crystals that had no practical application, and 800,000 years ago in the Wonderwerk Cave, also in South Africa, we have early evidence of the collection of coloured pigments. Around 300,000 years ago we see objects like the engraved elephant’s tibia from Bilzingsleben and the alleged sculptures of Berekhat Ram and Tan-Tan.

None of these objects in my view can be considered to be true art. However, it is possible that they represent a kind of proto-art, flashes of symbolic expression developing alongside language and increasingly sophisticated tool-making. Even tools, such as highly symmetrical Acheulean handaxes, sometimes suggest an emerging aesthetic sense. The evidence is not as abundant and unequivocal as examples from the Upper Paleolithic, but nonetheless a strong case can be made for instances of symbolic behaviour in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic.

Many archaeologists argue that Neanderthals in particular, amongst non-sapiens humans, were capable of producing symbolic objects. Even if this is so, their use of symbols was clearly far more limited in quality and quantity than in our own species. According to the archaeologist Randall White, modern behaviours require “evidence of organised symbolic systems shared across space and through time”[3]; what is distinctive about Homo sapiens is that symbolic behaviours become unambiguous, widespread and a dominant part of our cultural life.

About 160–200,000 years ago in Africa, Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct species and slowly spread out across the world. What made us special was a set of new cognitive powers that separated us from our hominid ancestors, such as the creation of complex, specialised tools, ritual burial of the dead and the creation of art — all products of the widespread use of symbols.

PictogramPictogram of an animal from the Apollo 11 cave in Namibia, ca. 27,000 years old.

Our earliest evidence for symbolic behaviours amongst Homo sapiens lies in sites such as Qafzeh Cave in modern-day Israel, where red ochre appears to have been used during burials as long as 100,000 years ago. Ochre was used as a colouring in other contexts too, and pieces of perforated bone and shell were worn as beads. About 75,000 years ago, perforated shell serving as beads and a piece of ochre etched with seemingly symbolic markings were found in Blombos Cave.

How did symbolic communication evolve?

How humans’ use of symbols evolved is, unsurprisingly, disputed. Our difficulty is that brains do not fossilise and we are restricted to mostly circumstantial evidence — the sizes of brain cavities, surviving cultural artifacts, and so on. It is obvious that our unique cognitive powers began at some point in the 2.5 million years since, and possibly helping to create, the habilines. The archaeologist Timothy Taylor has argued that ‘a fractionally more complex material culture’ may account for the evolution of australopithecines to habilines.

The acquisition of symbols was a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in the history of all known life. Symbols are extremely difficult to ‘discover’ because they draw their meaning not from immediate correlations with physical things, but from each other. This is argued by Deacon in The Symbolic Species:

The problem with symbol systems... is that there is both a lot of learning and unlearning that must take place before a single symbolic relationship is available. Symbols cannot be acquired one at a time, the way other learned associations can, except after a symbol reference system is established. A logically complete system of relationships among the set of symbol tokens must be learned before the symbolic association between any one symbol token and an object can even be determined... For this reason, it’s hard to get started. To learn a first symbolic relationship requires holding a lot of associations in mind at once while at the same time mentally sampling the potential combinatorial patterns hidden in their higher-order relationships.[4]

When a pigeon in a laboratory learns to taps a button in order to receive food, it is making an indexical relationship between the object and the delivery of food. To use symbols requires more than making rote associations between signifier and signified: we need to be able to extract abstract features from objects and observe relationships between things. Because they do not refer to things in the world through direct physical correlations, symbols work by reference to each other, drawing their meaning from a system of symbols. This doesn’t mean they have no relationship to reality at all, but it does mean the signified does not have to be physically present or, in the case of abstract concepts, to have any physical form.

How did Homo sapiens make that leap?

Given the difficulty of acquiring it, there must be something special about human brains that makes symbolic communication easier for us than for other species. (We also need to understand that the mind is not limited to our brain but is also in a relationship with our body and with the world beyond it, of which more another time.) Biological parameters are certainly important. For example, small animals are also short-lived animals, for whom the process of learning would take more time than they have available, and so their small brains would not be adapted to such strategies. This may mean that symbolic communication could only develop in a relatively long-lived, large-brained animal, such as a primate. There is however no straightforward correlation between brain size and intelligence: whales have bigger brains than modern humans, as did Neanderthals on average; even when we take the proportion of brain size to body size, the shrew comes out on top. So although the largeness of our brain seems to be important, its ‘architecture’ must be at least equally important. Deacon proposes that the prefrontal cortex, which is unusually large in humans, may be significant in helping us recognise patterns of cognition and in building the mental architecture that supports symbolic reference. This doesn’t however mean that our processing of symbols can all be found in the prefrontal cortex — any search for a ring-fenced part of the brain that processes symbolisation by itself is doomed to fail.

The leap to symbolic communication

The force that drove the acquisition of symbols is still unclear. But an obvious contender is language. Language — which is more than just speech — requires abstract thought and complex structures, as well as its role in giving advantages to our food-gathering, child-rearing, spreading into new territories, cultural production and other activities. Here is Deacon again:

The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought — symbolic representation. Without symbolisation the entire virtual world that I have described is out of reach: inconceivable.[5]

If language helped to drive the evolution of the modern human brain, this must be based upon some kind of adaptation in the brain that makes language possible, but what difference is it and by what process did it arise? Rather than ask which came first, the chicken or the egg, i.e. language or the widespread use of symbols, we should ask how the two evolved in combination — language is itself a form of symbolic communication. We have already discussed the acquisition of language by humans in a previous article, where we concluded that language probably arose from the new concepts introduced by tool-making and new forms of social organisation.

This process of intellectual development had material consequences for our brains, embodied in the famous phrase from John 1:14, which Deacon takes as a chapter heading: “and the word became flesh”. Describing the human brain as a miracle, Deacon proposes that

the changes in this organ responsible for this miracle were a direct consequence of the use of words. And I don’t mean this in a figurative sense. I mean that the major structural and functional innovations that make human brains capable of unprecedented mental feats evolved in response to the use of something as abstract and virtual as the power of words. Or, to put this miracle in simple terms, I suggest that an idea changed the brain.

A Marxist’s initial response to this is probably suspicion. It sounds like idealism: abstract thought leading the physical world, or consciousness determining being. In fact, Deacon’s idea sits comfortably with the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. His argument is that the acquisition of symbolic reference by our ancestors influenced the ways in which natural selection affected our evolution.

To this end he recruits the extension of Darwinian theory proposed at the turn of the last century by the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin, sometimes called the ‘Baldwin effect’ or ‘Baldwinian evolution’. Baldwin suggested that learned and cultural behaviour can affect a species’ evolution, because behaviour can influence the environmental context that selects for future generations. Natural selection will “move along the channel already cut by culture, thereby converting learned behaviours into genetic adaptations or, alternatively, supporting learned behaviours by related genetic adaptations”[6].

Seasonal migration, for example, might allow some members of a group to enter new evolutionary niches at the very edge of the group’s normal habitat. As the sub-group spends more time in these new conditions, physical adaptations such as a thicker coat or hibernation would be selected for. An example amongst humans is lactose tolerance, which is strongest in areas where people have cultivated animals for their milk for the longest — i.e. a cultural change, the domestication of animals, has led to a genetic change. Deacon proposes:

More than any other group of species, hominids’ behavioural adaptations have determined the course of their physical evolution, rather than vice versa. Stone and symbolic tools, which were initially acquired with the aid of flexible ape-learning abilities, ultimately turned the tables on their users and forced them to adapt to a new niche opened by these technologies. Rather than being just useful tricks, these behavioural prostheses for obtaining food and organising social behaviours became indispensable elements in a new adaptive complex. The origin of ‘humanness’ can be defined as that point in our evolution where these tools became the principal source of selection on our bodies and brains.

Engels, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876), placed great stress on the human hand — labour and tool-making perfected the hand, which led to advances elsewhere in the organism. Engels admitted that the correlation was not yet understood, and his emphasis on the hand, based upon the scientific level of the time, oversimplifies the evolutionary process. Yet his statement in general terms is correct: our evolution was a consequence of our material engagement with the world.

The significant increase in brain size associated with the beginning of the genus HomoHomo habilis — roughly coincides with the Oldowan technology dating to approximately 2.5 million years ago. Perhaps, it was not that greater intelligence led our ancestors to start using tools. Rather, it was the very first use of tools that encouraged a leap of intelligence to our own genus: “implicit in their stone tools and social-ecological adaptations,” writes Deacons, “were the seeds of future human characteristics.” He argues, “symbols have literally changed the kind of biological organism we are... I think we operate fundamentally different at a cognitive level because of this.”[7]

This is something Marxists have been arguing for a very long time. In the venerable phrase of Gordon Childe: ‘man makes himself’.

Signs would have expanded our ability to communicate and survive as well as the cognitive powers required to create art. An animal may make an association between, say, a particular sound and a particular event. But associating things that have no correlation in the physical world through an infinite number of representations: that is unique to human beings. In addition, language organises our thoughts and perceptions to the point that we cannot be sure where our perceptions end and their interpretation by language begins.

Deacon suggests that the very earliest symbol use may date back to the australopithecines, with larger brains, opposable thumbs, bipedality and other key changes developing as a result of emerging symbolic systems rather than the other way around. The use of symbols then strengthened as a solution to the particular situation in which Homo sapiens found itself. This is the kernel of his theory that the brain was changed by ideas.

One of the mechanisms for acquiring symbols may have been ritual. Ritual demands a shift of attention from immediate indexical relationships of signs to objects to a set of relationships between signs, i.e. from concrete relationships to the abstract. Ritual fulfils this role by repeating actions over and over again until they become automatic, releasing the mind from the individual details and concentrating instead on a kind of ‘higher order’ meaning. Rituals such as initiation at puberty, or marriage, define group members according to symbolic roles such as child, adult, husband, wife, using vocalisations, gestures, and objects.

Objects routinely used in the ritual become symbolic of the ritual themselves — a wedding ring becomes symbolic of marriage. “Symbolic culture was a response to a reproductive problem that only symbols could solve: the imperative of representing a social contract.” We know from the evidence at Qafzeh Cave that ritual burials were being performed 100,000 years ago, where the participants seem to have been making a symbolic connection between a coloured pigment and the concept of death.

weddingA modern Western marriage ritual. All elements of a marriage ceremony — the location, the clothes worn by either sex, the actions they perform — are symbolic conventions determined by culture.

The jump to symbolic communication was so difficult and so significant that it must have offered advantages in terms of natural selection. Once humans had acquired their very first proto-language, many aspects of human behaviour would have been improved by its acquisition. This is why there are so many theories about what particular aspect kicked things off. Language would have enhanced everything we did, from rearing babies to felling mammoths, enabling the sharing of information, the building of social bonds, and so on. Symbols would have made possible the creation of contracts between social groups, as a contract is itself a kind of symbol — not based on an indexical relationship between things, but on abstract concepts such as peace or marriage.

There is another reason why humans might have made this cognitive leap. Hominid species experienced a remarkable swinging of the world climate from cold to hot and back again, sometimes within a single lifetime. Richard Potts, an anthropologist, has argued that we were adapting to a constantly changing environment: the use of symbols and abstract thought gave us the flexibility to diversify our behaviour and take control of our environment.[8] This plasticity allows us to put concepts together in countless creative ways. In my view, however, this adaptability should be seen as a benefit of our cognitive development rather than a cause.


One does not have to agree with Deacon on everything, but for a Marxist, his emphasis upon relationships and process, rather than fixed templates and the gradual acquisition of individual facts, is very compelling. His argument for the evolution of symbolic communication is in my view compatible with Engels’ emphasis on human evolution as the work of humans themselves, thus demonstrating that although Marx and Engels were both born nearly 200 years ago [9], their thought continues to find support not only in economics but in modern neuroscience.

Whatever the particular cause for the original emergence of symbolic communication, it probably spread into other social and practical functions. We see everything in symbolic terms, down to seeing our lives as stories, or interpreting the sunrise as the work of a deity. The ability to overcome one’s immediate interest for a ‘higher order’ meaning is what makes it possible for humans to enact all sorts of unique behaviours, some of which represent the best and worse of our species — bravery or self-sacrifice on the one hand, torture and atrocity on the other.

The ubiquity of symbols based upon arbitrary associations means that human beings are caught in a network of ideology and conventions. We have already quoted Voloshinov in the previous post: “Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too”. Some of this network has a strong basis in material reality, other aspects are illusions or downright nonsense. This too is an inescapable aspect of what it means to be a human being.

[1] Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, The Blue and Brown Books (1958).
[2] For a discussion, see Robert Bednarik, ‘Beads and the origins of symbolism’ (2000). Archaeologist Bednarik is an exponent of the long-range model, insisting that symbolic behaviour is very ancient.
[3] Cited in Michael Balter, ‘What Makes Modern Humans Modern’, Science (February 2002).
[4] Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997).
[5] ibid.
[6] Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew, Evolution and learning: the Baldwin effect reconsidered (2003).
[7] In an interview available at
[8] Richard Potts, Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability (1997).
[9] To be precise, Marx was born in 1818, Engels in 1820.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 2: Animals and symbols

“Human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; symbolic behaviour is human behaviour. The symbol is the universe of humanity.”
— Leslie White

Symbols are a part of human cultural life only — no other animal normally uses symbols. Yet the assertion of the socialist archaeologist Leslie White above [1] may seem too exclusive. We often assume that animals have a simple understanding of sign and signifier, even of words. After all, we know that animals can be trained to do things. We tell our dog to sit and it sits: isn’t this evidence that it understands the word ‘sit’ on some level by associating a sound with an object? The alarm calls of social species such as vervet monkeys vary according to the type of threat detected: doesn’t that equate to using signifiers for different predators in a way that, in essence, is like language?

Firstly, signs are not unique to language. Both animal and human communication use signs. Rather, what matters here is the kind of reference being used: animals do not use reference in the same way as humans do with words. This has been persuasively argued by Terrence Deacon in his book The Symbolic Species. When we tell our dog to sit and it sits, it has learnt to associate a sound with an action, but that is different to the dog understanding what the word ‘sit’ means. Deacon uses the example of laughter, which can’t normally be said to ‘mean’ something the way the word ‘laughter’ does. Instead it indicates a certain emotion, relying on a physical co-occurrence between the signifier and signified.

By contrast, a word’s meaning is not intrinsic to it but requires “an appropriate symbolic interpretive response”. The animal’s response to the ‘sit’ command is inflexible, rather like rote learning. Thus, to refer back to the discussion in the previous post, the sign functions on the level of an index, not a symbol: a certain smell may indicate to a dog that a female is on heat, or the vervet’s alarm call may indicate the presence of a certain predator. This is quite different to the symbolic communication used by humans, wherein things are associated by a social agreement. Two people will use the word ‘dog’ even when a dog is nowhere to be seen, and no person has ever seen a ‘snark’. In addition, the discussion of a dog will call into our mind all sorts of other associations and concepts, such as ‘fur’, ‘pet’, ‘companionship’ and so on, for which no physical or correlative object need be present. When we tell the dog to sit, the dog only understands the word ‘sit’ indexically, while the human understands it symbolically.

Symbol use in apes

To say that no other animal normally uses symbols is not to say that all animals are incapable of using them.

A great deal of research is being conducted with our nearest living primate relatives to see what can be learned about the effects of language and culture on early human development. Some clever apes can be trained in sign language or Lexigram boards and show a capacity for using symbolic communication, including abstract concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and a conception of time. One of the most famous of these apes is a bonobo or pigmy chimpanzee named Kanzi, who along with his sister Panbanisha understands spoken English — although they don’t have the vocal apparatus to even try and respond in kind, they do communicate with humans using symbols.

Kanzi using a Lexigram board.

Kanzi can do more than simply match a symbol to a word. By touching a symbol, he can communicate his own needs, wants and feelings.

Researchers such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who works with Kanzi, suggest that he is not necessarily exceptional. His and Panbanisha’s ability to understand symbols was only unlocked through intense human intervention, but the potential clearly existed in the bonobos already. Perhaps this is not especially surprising in hindsight. Chimps and bonobos are separated from humans by about six million years of evolution, but we share a common ancestor [2] and a primate biology. It seems that at some point in our common hominid evolution, conditions favoured a symbolic capacity which only Homo sapiens brought to maturity. Although animals cannot create art, we know that apes can display a rudimentary aesthetic sense, as when the famous ‘painting apes’ match brush marks to a pictorial field.

The abilities of Kanzi and Panbanisha are astonishing for someone who hasn’t come across them before, and they cause difficulty for nativist arguments for language, i.e. that human language ability is based upon a module, ‘Language Acquisition Device’ or similar development unique to Homo sapiens. Some scientists, including Steven Pinker, have been highly critical, arguing that Kanzi does not really understand symbols and is reacting to rewards given him by his handlers. If one does not wish to go that far, the human capacity for symbolisation is nonetheless of a different order. Kanzi can communicate approximately on the level of a two-year old child, or to look at it differently, of one of our hominid ancestors. He may help us understand how symbolic communication got started in an early human such as Australopithecus. But he has no physiological capacity for speech, depends entirely upon a human-made ‘gifted environment’ for his abilities, and is severely lacking in sophistication (he is unable to ask a question, for example).

Language is not simply a ‘more complex’ version of animal communication, it is a different order of communication. It demands that signs acquire culturally determined meanings that are learned, not biologically inherited. This is not to deny that rare cases like Kanzi can be taught to use it to some extent, or that no other species on any planet could possibly acquire them. The achievements of apes like Kanzi prove that it is incorrect to claim that only humans are capable of using symbols, and show that language acquisition depends upon a culture of language. However, thoroughgoing symbolic communication, such as art, demands cognitive skills which only humans possess. We wait in vain for Kanzi to write a poem. It is very difficult to say for sure, but our own evolutionary lineage seems to have acquired some degree of symbol use (tools, language) before it acquired art. Language is sometimes attributed to early hominids, e.g. by Steven Mithen, whereas full-blown art — leaving aside the arguments over the Berekhat Ram object, the creations of the last generation of Neanderthals, etc — only appears with Homo sapiens. Kanzi has proved capable of taking the first steps on the symbolic journey, but unlike humans has not experienced the many millennia of subsequent biological and cultural evolution necessary for art.

Lacking the advantage of intense intervention from a symbol-using species, our own ancestors had to make the leap to using symbols for themselves. It was probably an uneven process, with flashes of symbol use emerging and dying here and there before it finally became a universal human trait. How it might have arisen is the subject of our next post.

Further investigation
Watch video documentaries about Kanzi at (two videos, length approx. one hour each).

[1] Leslie White, ‘The Symbol: The Origin and Basis of Human Behaviour’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 1 no. 4 (1944).
[2] One contender is Ouranopithecus, an ancient hominid species of which a skull fragment was discovered in Greece.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 1: About signs

Human society would be unimaginable without symbols. They are used as a means of communication and to structure our social lives. They are essential to language and to art, but also lay the foundation stones for the invention of money, literacy and social institutions. Amongst all animals, only human beings have evolved the capacity to question their instincts, to wonder about how their lives might be different, even to ask why they exist. In his book The Symbolic Species, neuroscientist Terrence Deacon describes humans as living in a kind of virtual world, “full of abstractions, stories and impossibilities” and experienced only by themselves. We owe this virtual world to our species’ acquisition of symbolic thought. As the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it, “we think only in signs.”[1]

Yet we use words to refer to things every day with only a poor understanding how we do it or of the origins and nature of this fundamental capacity.

Before we explore in more detail, let’s lay out our basic framework of how human beings relate to the rest of the world and how we know anything about it.

Our place in the objective world

The starting point of Marxist epistemology is that we live in an objective, material universe that exists independently of human consciousness. We are a part of this universe, and exert an influence over a tiny fraction of it. But if the human race were to die out, this universe and its infinite array of physical processes would carry on without us.

Therefore our perceptions of the world are an impression upon our consciousness mostly made by something external to that consciousness. This external viewpoint is one that we can never occupy — for this reason our knowledge is always concretely situated, always perceived from a particular, human point of view.

Our perceptions of external reality are the basis for all our knowledge, but they are, inevitably, incomplete. As Marx put it in Capital, “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”[2] He was pointing out that surface impressions often conceal more fundamental laws which are not immediately apparent. Lenin expanded upon this:

Just as the simple incorporation of value, the single act of exchanging goods, includes in microcosm, in embryo, all the principal contradictions of capitalism — so the simplest generalisation, the initial and simplest formulation of concepts (judgements, conclusions) implies man’s ever-expanding apprehension of the objective macrocosm.

Lenin argued that abstractions that encapsulate natural laws and processes could represent external reality more profoundly than limited empirical data. “From active observation to abstract thought and from there to practical activity — such is the dialectical path of apprehending truth and objective reality.”

In the Marxist view, our perception of the world is a process, and a dialectical process. It is never completed, one-sided, dead or deterministic. Reality is always richer and more complex than our theories about it. Also, our acts of perception are more than just intellectual, rational processes, because humans are creative and imaginative beings. Here is Lenin again:

The approach of human reason to the individual thing, obtaining an impression (a concept) of it is no simple, direct, lifeless mirroring but a complicated, dichotomous, zigzag act which by its very nature encompasses the possibility that imagination can soar away from life… For even in the simplest generalisation of the most elementary universal idea (like the idea of a table) there lurks a shred of imagination (vice versa, it is foolish to deny the role of the imagination in the most exact science).

Just as humans are able to perceive a sofa, they are also able — through what Steven Mithen would call ‘cognitive fluidity’ — to conceive of a sofa that flies, or talks, or turns into a chair, and so on. The relationship between the external world and our consciousness is plastic. Humans can turn anything — an image, an act, an object — into a sign and invest it with meaning.

The anatomy of signs

The obvious question to proceed with is, what is a sign? A sign is something which represents something else. It could be a word, or take any other form: a sound, an object, a colour. Its meaning need have no connection to its physical form. As Shakespeare famously put it, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.[3]

The study of how people communicate using signs is termed semiology or semiotics (from the Greek semeion, ‘sign’). Although this term first appears in the seventeenth century, the study of signs dates back to the ancient world. In the modern era, Valentin Voloshinov made an important Marxist contribution in the 1920s, but the most influential modern semiotician was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose key work Course in General Linguistics was published in 1916.

Saussure argued that the meaning of signs was based upon the relationship between a signifier (the form the sign takes, such as a word) and a signified (the concept or thing the signifier refers to).

Semiology recognises, however, that this is not sufficient. If a dog sits down when you say ‘Sit!’, it is associating the sound made by you with the action of sitting down, yet this form of reference is clearly of a different sort to Van Gogh’s when he recreates sunflowers in a painting. We need to be able to distinguish between forms of reference. The most enduring system for this — though it has been criticised — was devised by Charles Sanders Peirce, who divided signs into three major types according to the nature of their referential relationships: icon, index and symbol. These are based upon similarity, correlation and convention.

Icon: the sign has a physical similarity to the object. Your passport photo is an icon of yourself; the little picture of a house on your browser toolbar is an icon for your homepage.
Index: the sign ‘points to’ the object by some sensory correlation. A thermometer indicates a temperature; a limp indicates an injury; a bad odour indicates the presence of a skunk.
Symbol: the sign corresponds to the object by some agreed association that does not necessarily have any physical resemblance or sensory correlation; its link to the referent is partly or entirely arbitrary. Any word is a symbol, e.g. ‘rose’ referring to a kind of flower; the three-coloured Cuban flag can act as a symbol of the nation of Cuba; a red octagon with STOP in the middle is a symbol for an instruction to stop your car.

No object is inherently a sign, of any sort — they are interpreted as signs by animals, including of course ourselves. Something does not become an icon, for example, simply because it bears a resemblance to something else — it becomes a sign when one thing is interpreted as evoking the other by a living subject, i.e. it is an act of mind. A painting that is never seen and interpreted by the human eye is just an object made of paint and canvas; on the other hand, the human mind can perceive significance in entirely coincidental or imaginary relationships. A symbol is usually designed to be interpreted in a particular way.

Peirce’s types of sign aren’t exclusive. The same sign might be interpreted as an icon, index or a symbol depending upon the context. Deacon uses the example of Mesopotamian tablets — the first archaeologists did not know the ciphers inscribed in the clay, but knew by comparison with known languages that they were probably a writing system. At that stage, the symbols were merely iconic of other such written marks. When such ciphers were found on the seals that accompanied trade goods, they acquired an indexical meaning, and a symbolic meaning could also be conjectured, e.g. that a given cipher was a word for ‘wheat’.

Signs may also be understood on a series of levels. Another of Deacon’s examples is laughter. When human beings laugh, they indicate that they find something funny. Chimps, who sometimes make laughter-like sounds during play, might recognise the social, playful aspect of human laughter, but would be incapable of appreciating the concept of humour. A cat or dog, lacking the background of social signalling that humans have in common with other apes, probably does not have even that level of recognition of what laughter is, and will interpret it only in the context of other times that humans have made this baffling noise. Species such as snails or fish will interpret laughter only as just another noise or vibration.

With the exception of a handful of highly trained animals such as chimps, only humans use symbols (we will discuss this in the next post).

Symbols and ideology

The ‘common sense’ understanding of symbols says that they are an association of a thing with something else, but as we can see, this is a description of an indexical sign rather than a symbolic one. The relationship between a symbol and its signified is often arbitrary. Instead, symbols are connected to each other in a set of interlocking relationships. They draw their meaning not from a direct physical association but from being part of a system — this is most obvious in language — and this means that symbols are a shared or social reference.

The use of symbolic representation is a social act: the attempt of human beings to use an social convention to draw the attention of others to some feature of the world. More precisely, it is the attempt to manipulate the attention of others. This essentially ideological role was noted by the Marxist Valentin Voloshinov:

A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality — it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it, or may perceive it from a special point of view, and so forth. Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc.). The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too.[4]

Symbols are not direct representations of external phenomena, based purely upon perception. When we encounter established symbols, we are encountering ways in which people in the past wished to manipulate our understanding of the world. The process of interpreting them is a re-presentation, a re-cognition of something. But these meanings are never static. Cultures, and their symbols, undergo constant change, and over time we find ourselves presented with an immense variety of symbols offering a multiplicity of perspectives and sometimes contradictory meanings. This is why symbolic representation can be so flexible and ambiguous — it derives from a ‘virtual’ world that can exist independently of factual, physical correspondences, and if the often arbitrary conventions that gave it meaning are lost then its meaning becomes obscure. Thus we are reminded of the plasticity of our relationship with the external world. The system of symbols is “a vast and constantly changing semantic space” (Deacon).

Symbols also expand our way of thinking. As Michael Tomasello puts it, they provide “truly new ways of conceptualising things such as treating objects as actions, treating actions as objects, and myriad types of metaphorical construals of things.” Or, as Voloshinov wrote:

Without signs there is no ideology. A physical body equals itself, so to speak; it does not signify anything but wholly coincides with its particular, given nature. In this case, there is no question of ideology.

However, any physical body may be perceived as an image; for instance, the image of natural inertia and necessity embodied in that particular thing. Any such artistic-symbolic image to which a particular physical object gives rise is already an ideological product. The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object, reflects and refracts another reality.[5]

Symbols, then, offer an ideological perspective on the world and on human social relationships. These relationships include distribution of power and wealth, etc, so needless to say, one of the functions of symbols is as ideological tools to promote group interests, above all ultimately class interests.


Almost no human being fails to have some understanding of symbols. Even those whose cognitive abilities are seriously impaired usually pick up at least the rudiments of language. It has become a universal trait in our species but is absent in all others, save the arguable case of certain intensively-trained chimps. Clearly it offered an extraordinary selective advantage to those humans who acquired it, and meant a great disadvantage for those who didn’t.

Symbolic communication gives humans access to a unique system of representation that conditions our experience and opens up to us the world of abstraction. We do not live merely in immediate relationships but according to rules and conventions, hopes, beliefs, fears about things that have not even happened. We project ourselves into all sorts of natural processes, seeing design and purpose where there is none. As this blog has argued, art is a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. Because symbols are independent of direct reference, they allow us to imagine other worlds which may be counterposed to our own, and as such are a pre-requisite not only for language but for myth, literature and science. And we are unable not to see the universe in symbolic terms.

Further reading:
Readers new to semiotics may find Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners site useful:

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘What is a sign?’ (1894).
[2] Marx, Chapter 48 ‘The Trinity Formula’, Capital, Vol 3 (1894).
[3] Shakespeare, Act 2, scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet (first publ. 1597).
[4] Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929).
[5] ibid.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Reading list

Every so often I am contacted by people asking for advice on what to read. So I thought it might be helpful to publish a reading list of Marxist art theory. This is after all one of the less well-known branches of Marxist theory, and many of its key works are unknown even to well-read Marxists.

This blog already has a Bibliography, but that is more expansive and is being added to slowly over time. Here is a bald list, which cannot of course be exhaustive. I will add more titles to it as I think of them. Only works available in English are listed.

Marx and Engels
Ed. Baxandall, Lee and Morawski, Stefan: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art (anthology, 1973)
Engels, Friedrich: Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle (18 May 1859)
Engels, Friedrich: Letter to Minna Kautsky (26 November 1885)
Engels, Friedrich: Letter to Margaret Harkness (April 1888)
Engels, Friedrich: Rapid Progress of Communism in Germany (article, 1844)
Marx, Karl: discussion of Eugène Sue from The Holy Family (1845)
Marx, Karl: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (first pub. 1932)
Marx, Karl: Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle (19 April 1859)

Other ‘classical’ Marxists
Gramsci, Antonio: The Prison Notebooks (1929–1935)
Lenin, Vladimir: Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution (article, 1908)
Lenin, Vladimir: On Literature and Art (anthology, 1967)
Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art (anthology, 1965)
Mao Zedong: Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature (1942)
Plekhanov: Art and Social Life (pamphlet, 1912)
Trotsky, Leon: Literature and Revolution (1924)
Trotsky, Leon: Art and Revolution: Writings on Literature, Politics and Culture (1970)

Marxist art history
Antal, Frederick: Florentine Painting and its Social Background (1948)
Berger, John: Art and Revolution (1969)
Childe, Gordon: What Happened in History (1942)
Childe, Gordon: Man Makes Himself (1936)
Hauser, Arnold: A Social History of Art, 4 vols (1951)
Klingender, Francis: Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947)

Other works
Adorno, Theodor: The Culture Industry (1991)
Adorno, Theodor: Aesthetic Theory (1970)
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max: Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)
Arvon, Henri: Marxist Esthetics (1970)
Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
Bennett, Tony: Formalism and Marxism (1979)
Berger, John: Ways of Seeing (1972)
Brecht, Bertolt: Against Georg Lukács
Caudwell, Christopher: Illusion and Reality (1937)
Debord, Guy: The Society of the Spectacle (1967)
Demetz, Peter: Marx, Engels and the Poets (1967)
Eagleton, Terry: Criticism and Ideology (1976)
Eagleton, Terry: Literary Theory (1983)
Eagleton, Terry: Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976)
Fischer, Ernst: Art Against Ideology (1966)
Fischer, Ernst: The Necessity of Art (1959)
Goldmann, Lucien: The Hidden God (1964)
Hauser, Arnold: The Sociology of Art (1974)
Ed. Hemingway, Andrew: Marxism and the History of Art: From William Morris to the New Left (2006)
Jameson, Fredric: Marxism and Form (1971)
Klingender, Francis: Marxism and Modern Art (pamphlet, 1975)
Laing, Dave: The Marxist Theory of Art (1978)
Ed. Lang, Berel and Williams, Forest: Marxism and Art: Writings in Aesthetics and Criticism (anthology, 1972)
Lifschitz: The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933)
Lukács, György: The Historical Novel (1937)
Lukács, György: Realism in the Balance 1938
Lukács, György: Studies in European Realism (1950)
Lukács, György: Writer and Critic (1970)
Macherey, Pierre: A Theory of Literary Production (1978)
Marcuse, Herbert: The Aesthetic Dimension (1977)
O’Flinn, Paul: Them and Us in Literature (1975)
Prawer, S.S.: Karl Marx and World Literature (1976)
Raphael, Max: The Demands of Art (1968)
Raphael, Max: Proudhon, Marx, Picasso (1933)
Rose, Margaret: Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx & the Visual Arts (1984)
Sánchez-Vásquez, Adolfo: Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics (1973)
Ed. Solomon, Maynard: Marxism and Art (anthology, 1973)
Voloshinov, Valentin: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929)
Voronsky, Aleksandr: Art as the Cognition of Life: Selected Writings (1911–1936)
Ed. Willett, John: Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (1964)
Williams, Raymond: Marxism and Literature (1977)

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The murals of Caracas

The last of three articles on popular art in the Bolivarian Revolution, originally published by here. Photos by Silvia Leindecker.
Translations of the Spanish provided where required.

In Caracas, murals decorate the walls of barrios with the sentiments and aspirations of the people. These creations, sometimes elaborate and detailed, sometimes simple and direct, are often the product of a collective effort among neighbors to beautify their living space. In the community spaces as well as the nooks and crannies of the bustling, sprawling city, this art rivals commercial billboards that permeate much of the visual landscape. In many cases the murals pay homage to Latin American heroes who continue to inspire people to fight for freedom and justice. They also tell stories of history, oppression, and resistance.

Click image to see larger version.

caracas murals 1
‘Twentieth Century’

caracas murals #2
‘Constructing Popular Power’ (left), ‘94.7FM Free Radio to the rhythm of 23 [de Enero barrio]’ (centre)

caracas murals #3
‘The Federal War’ (top), ‘Tremble, oligarchs’ (centre), ‘Free Land and Men’(bottom)

caracas murals #4
‘Simón Bolívar Coordinator: with Bolívar, with Manuel, with the people to power’

caracas murals #5
‘The Invasion’

caracas murals #6

caracas murals #7

caracas murals #8

caracas murals #9
‘European conquest’

caracas murals #10
‘Community Strength: Ernesto “Che” Guevara’

Urban Street Art by the Communicational Liberation Army

The second of three articles on popular art in the Bolivarian Revolution, originally published by here.

By Ejercito Comunicacional de Liberacion

The urban street art produced by the Communicational Liberation Army has been sarcastically mocked and framed as government propaganda by the mainstream international media, including the New York Times and Reuters. In reality, the Urban Interventions Festival held in La Pastora (a Caracas barrio) provides a forum for constructive, empowering community engagement. It opens the door for popular sentiment to be creatively expressed beyond the boundaries of commercialised marketing, which usually dominates the urban visual landscape and attempts to define citizenship and political participation within a consumerist framework.

In the words of festival organisers:

Street art is a medium for humanising and enabling public spaces, at the same time as it proposes a reconstruction of the relationship of citizens with their street, their neighbourhood, and their city: Everyday dialogue between reality and the absurd.

The festival included many forms of artistic expression in addition to murals and graffiti, such as dance, puppets and other theatre, painting and stenciling, video, and stickers.

Photos by Ejercito Comunicacional de Liberacion.

Click image to see larger version.

urban street art #1

urban street art #2

urban street art #3

urban street art #4

urban street art #5
A poster promoting the ‘Urban Interventions Festival’ of April 2010.

urban street art #6

Photo Essay: Revolutionary Walls

As part of a continuing interest in the development of the Bolivarian Revolution, I reproduce three recent articles on popular art from This is the first, originally published here.

By Communicational Guerrilla cooperative

For two years, the cooperative Communicational Guerrilla has been painting murals on Caracas city walls using stencils and templates made from metal or other hard but economic materials. They cut the image, and sometimes text, into the material, then paint using spray cans.

Carlos Zerpa, a designer and member of the collective, told ABN that they began the collective out of the “necessity... to deepen the revolution and democratise knowledge.”

The collective also conducts workshops in the communities and schools so that others can learn the technique.

Photos from, visit the link to see more [in Spanish language — E.H.].

Click image for larger version.

revolutionary walls #1

revolutionary walls #2
Walter Martinez, the host of the Venezuelan TV show ‘Dossier’, a news analysis show.

revolutionary walls #3

revolutionary walls #4
“A man without social knowledge is a slave”

revolutionary walls #5

revolutionary walls #6

revolutionary walls #7

revolutionary walls #8
‘Watering socialism’

revolutionary walls #9

revolutionary walls #10

revolutionary walls #11

revolutionary walls #12

revolutionary walls #13
‘27F, nor forget, nor pardon’. The 27th of February 1989, the day of the Caracazo when thousands of anti-neoliberal protestors were killed by the government of the time.

revolutionary walls #14

revolutionary walls #15
‘Make socialism fly.’

Saturday, 31 July 2010

United Front Song (Einheitsfrontlied)

One of the best-known songs of the German labour movement is Einheitsfrontlied or United Front Song, with text by Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler. The song was written in 1934 after the rise to power of Nazism, and reflects Brecht’s conviction that only a united front of the working class could lead to social progress. Eisler’s simple arrangement, together with the march-like beat, means it can easily be sung by people without musical training.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the sexism of the English translation below (“a man is flesh and blood”) does not exist in the German. The word Mensch means not a ‘man’ but a ‘person’.

And while a man is flesh and blood
He will ask, if you please, for bread and meat
And windy words won’t be enough
For words aren't good to eat.

    Then left, two, three! Then left, two, three!
    Comrade, here’s the place for you.
    So fall in with the workers’ united front
    For you are a worker too.

And while a man is flesh and blood
He won’t be driven till he drops.
He will want no slaves beneath his feet
And no masters up on top.

    Then left, two, three! Then left, two, three!
    Comrade, here’s the place for you.
    So fall in with the workers’ united front
    For you are a worker too.

As long as there are two classes
Proletarians must agree
It’s the task of none but the working class
To set the worker free.

    Then left, two, three! Then left, two, three!
    Comrade, here’s the place for you.
    So fall in with the workers’ united front
    For you are a worker too.

English translation by H.R. Hays

The original German version:

Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist,
drum braucht er was zum Essen bitte sehr!
Es macht ihn kein Geschwätz nicht satt,
das schafft kein Essen her.

    Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
    Wo dein Platz Genosse ist.
    Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront,
    Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist,
drum braucht er auch noch Kleider und Schuh.
Es macht ihn kein Geschwätz nicht warm
und auch kein Trommeln dazu.

    Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
    Wo dein Platz Genosse ist.
    Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront,
    Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist,
drum hat er Stiefel im Gesicht nicht gern.
Er will unter sich keinen Sklaven sehn
und über sich keinen Herrn.

    Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
    Wo dein Platz Genosse ist.
    Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront,
    Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

Und weil der Prolet ein Prolet ist,
drum kann ihn auch kein anderer befrein.
Es kann die Befreiung der Arbeiter nur
das Werk der Arbeiter sein.

    Drum links, zwei, drei! Drum links, zwei, drei!
    Wo dein Platz Genosse ist.
    Reih dich ein in die Arbeitereinheitsfront,
    Weil du auch ein Arbeiter bist.

You may notice there are in fact four verses — for some reason H.R. Hays does not translate the second verse.

You can listen to the 1934 recording (in German) by Ernst Busch from

One of the classic performances of Einheitsfrontlied is by the German singer-songwriter Hannes Wader. I have had the good fortune to hear him sing live in Germany.

Here is another noteworthy performance, by the classic German rock band Ton Steine Scherben (vocalist Rio Reiser):

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Internationale

The most famous song of all for socialists is, of course, the Internationale. I mentioned Tony Babino’s tongue-in-cheek version in an earlier post, but the best-known recording extant in English is by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

Rather than keep to the ‘archaic and unsingable’ traditional English translation, Bragg uses his own modernised text.

First stanza

Stand up, all victims of oppression,
For the tyrants fear your might!
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions,
For you have nothing if you have no rights!
Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the empires fall!
Freedom is merely privilege extended,
Unless enjoyed by one and all.
    So come brothers and sisters,
    For the struggle carries on.
    The Internationale,
    Unites the world in song.
    So comrades, come rally,
    For this is the time and place!
    The international ideal,
    Unites the human race.

Second stanza

Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone.
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us,
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.
In our world poisoned by exploitation,
Those who have taken, now they must give!
And end the vanity of nations,
We’ve but one Earth on which to live.
    So come brothers and sisters,
    For the struggle carries on.
    The Internationale,
    Unites the world in song.
    So comrades, come rally,
    For this is the time and place!
    The international ideal,
    Unites the human race.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The oldest recorded song... ever

The oldest known recording of a piece of music is a haunting performance of the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune, and is a remarkable 150 years old.

The recording was made on 9 April 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, inventor of the phonautograph, the first ever sound recording device. The phonautograph transcribed sound waves onto paper as a visual representation, described by Science News as “a bunch of wavy lines scratched by a stylus onto fragile paper that had been blackened by the soot from an oil lamp”. But it could not play it back again, as audio playback was not even conceived at the time. To hear this song, we had to wait until 2008, when American historians from the First Sounds group found the recording in Paris and extracted it using modern computer technology.

At first, the voice was believed to belong to a woman or girl, but further contextual evidence suggested that the recording was being played too fast, and was more likely to be of Scott himself:

Despite the difficulty of knowing precisely how this recording should be reproduced, it is extraordinary to hear a voice from another era coming down to us.

• You can hear more of Scott’s phonautographs at
• Read the original New York Times report (March 2008).